The Interpersonal Perspective

As we learned in previous chapters, the interpersonal perspective is concerned with patterns of communication between individuals and whether these communications are congruent or incongruent with the definition of the self on both sides. Timothy Leary (1957) referred to the compulsive as the "hypernormal" personality. Such persons make normality a goal and want others to perceive them as reasonable, successful, and mature. Perceptions of weakness or childishness are the antithesis of how compulsives wish to be seen by others. In Leary's formulation, the capacity for playfulness, childlike indulgence, and the capacity to show deep feelings would all be regarded as an unconscious or suppressed portion of their personality. Kiesler (1996, p. 161) regards the compulsive pattern as a form of hostile submission, describing them as emotionally nonexpressive, hyperrational, perfectionistic, indecisive, and uncertain. Also included were tendencies that blend the interpersonal and cognitive, such as "censoring and premonitoring."

We can conclude that compulsives are highly deliberate in their interpersonal interactions. Whereas normal persons have the capacity for spontaneity, compulsives actively monitor their own actions and messages. Their communications may seem to be preceded by a flowchart rigidity, perhaps looking a little like this: First, formulate an interpersonal plan. Second, check the plan scrupulously for deficiencies in precision and maturity, adopting a low threshold at which to delete behavioral possibilities to eliminate any possibility of embarrassment or incompetency. Third, formulate new behaviors if necessary, and check as before. Fourth, enact selected behaviors, gauge the reactions of others, and return to step one. Rigidity increases when the other participants in the transaction have some rank or status that exceeds that of the compulsive so that the importance of censoring mistakes increases.

The interpersonal process of compulsives requires that they invest much time and energy in it. For this reason, compulsives are often seen by others as reserved, cheerless, or even grim. Although they are invariably polite, this flows from their desire to adhere to social convention, not from an intrinsic warmth. Their posture and movement may seem tight and controlled. Their words are carefully chosen to be accurate and objective. Whatever the topic of conversation, compulsives prefer to remain distant and impersonal, disdaining subjective assessments or opinion in favor of intellectualized or abstract formulations that reveal nothing of themselves. They may speak in a stilted and impersonal manner that universalizes their commentary, raising it to the level of a rule. For example, a compulsive might say, "One often finds in life that experience is one's best teacher," rather than, "You make mistakes, learn what you can, and go on." For this reason, their interpersonal impression is one of propriety, formality, and restraint. Holden would almost certainly strike others this way. A hint of his need for restraint is seen in the absence of anger he feels toward the new administration that asked him to step down.

The inner dynamics of the compulsive personality are made especially clear when contrasting their interpersonal conduct with superiors and subordinates. Given their conscientiousness and preoccupation with detail, efficiency, and perfection, compulsives make good "organization men or women," adopting the needs and goals of the business as their own, almost as part of their own superego. Most relate to others in terms of rank or status. They are deferential, even obsequious, to their superiors, but authoritarian or dictatorial with subordinates. By allying themselves with powerful others, compulsives enjoy a measure of protection and indirectly assume a mantle of strength and respect. At the same time, they use their position of power to induce fear into their subordinates, the same fear they themselves experience when "called on the carpet" before more powerful others. To vent their repressed hostilities, compulsives may antagonize their workers with rules, regulations, codes of conduct, and conformity to a job description. All three of the cases depicted in this chapter exhibit this characteristic: Holden with his students, Donald with his workers, and Elsa, discussed in Case 7.3.

How does the compulsive personality develop from an interpersonal perspective? Two features are prominent. The first is parental overcontrol. Overcontrol is similar to overprotection, important in the development of the dependent personality. Both betray an intrusiveness that affects the growing child's sense of autonomy, though in different

Elsa is a graduate teaching assistant who presented at the university counseling center at the suggestion of her supervising professor. She is to teach two classes, Introduction to Sociology and Research Methodology, and was given free rein to choose the textbooks, develop the lecture content, and create homework assignments and exam materials. When asked why she was given such latitude, her professor remarked, "I've worked with her, I know she likes things her own way."1 According to Elsa, she knows the material in great detail, having studied the entire summer rather than allow herself time off to spend with friends. Yet, there has been a swell of protest from students in both classes.

Elsa became a fixture at the bookstore for several weeks before the beginning of the semester. She was obsessed with choosing just the right text, but paralyzed by the many alternatives. Although the students feel that her lectures are well-organized and informative, they also feel that she imposes her own academic values onto them, and expects too much work, including weekly reports, a comprehensive final, and a term paper, and expects everything to be proofread and flawless. Worse, they note that she is extremely critical of everything they turn in, and seems so focused on sentence structure and writing style that she overlooks content and meaning. Due to her meticulous analysis, papers are often not returned for many weeks.

Elsa presents as a mature young lady. With her conservative hairstyle, gray suit, and serious manner, she seems much older than she really is. For her, therapy is just another responsibility, to be carried out earnestly. She admits wanting to please her supervising professor, but in the same breath reproaches her students, who "want a college degree without doing college work." As a teaching assistant, she has made it her duty to weed out those who see school as a four-year vacation from responsibility. She does not address, or emotionally acknowledge, the rather awkward reasons that brought her to the counseling center.

Elsa is the first person in her family to attend college. She describes her father as a proud but angry man, ruling the house by fear. Her mother insisted she do well in school and rise above their "immigrant heritage." Elsa attended church regularly, kept house for the family, and did well enough to win a college scholarship, which paid most of her tuition. She is ashamed of her sister, who left home at 15 and contacts the family only in dire circumstances. Elsa still lives at home, which "allows me to save rent money." She has no social life beyond church, but states that she neither needs nor has the time for one. Her days are well organized, with intense devotion to her work. She becomes angry thinking about others who fail to use their time wisely, namely, the students in her two classes.

1Numbers mark aspects of the case most consistent with DSM criteria, and do not necessarily indicate that the case "meets" diagnostic criteria in this respect.

Compulsive Personality Disorder DSM-IV Criteria

A pervasive pattern of preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control, at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by four (or more) of the following:

(1) is preoccupied with details, rules, lists, order, organization, or schedules to the extent that the major point of the activity is lost

(2) shows perfectionism that interferes with task completion (e.g., is unable to complete a project because his or her own overly strict standards are not met)

(3) is excessively devoted to work and productivity to the exclusion of leisure activities and friendships (not accounted for by obvious economic necessity)

(4) is overconscientious, scrupulous, and inflexible about matters of morality, ethics, or values (not accounted for by cultural or religious identification)

(5) is unable to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value

(6) is reluctant to delegate tasks or to work with others unless they submit to exactly his or her way of doing things

(7) adopts a miserly spending style toward both self and others; money is viewed as something to be hoarded for future catastrophes

(8) shows rigidity and stubbornness

Reproduced with permission from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Copyright 1994 American Psychiatric Association.

ways. Overprotection usually reflects loving parental concern, the implicit message being, "We love you, let us do for you, because you are incapable on your own." In contrast, overcontrol is based on the appraisal that children can never be trusted with any amount of autonomy. Overcontrolling parents thus keep a close watch on their children and quickly punish even minor transgressions, even when the child does not yet have the cognitive capacity to fully understand what went wrong and why.

Overcontrol is thus similar to hostility, an important developmental factor for the antisocial and sadistic personalities. Hostile parents, however, punish regardless of actual behavior, whereas overcontrolling parents punish only when they believe the child has misbehaved. Nevertheless, the parents of the future compulsive set the threshold for misbehavior very low. As noted in the case of Holden, he and his brother "knew what they could count on in life. ... If they failed to meet expectations . . . punishment would be swift and severe." The interpersonal message to the future antisocial is, "You are bad"; the interpersonal message to the future compulsive is, "You'd better be careful, because you are mighty close to being bad." As a result, future compulsives grow up living in fear of making a mistake, without knowing when the next thrashing or tirade will come or what its justification will be. Naturally, they are plagued by indecision and self-doubt and stick closely and rigidly to the rules, which represent, as much as possible, a position of relative safety. Thus we have Elsa, who describes her father as a "proud but angry man."

Second, the parents of future compulsives almost never reward the child's legitimate achievements. Instead, they expect order and perfection and condemn anything that falls

Focus on History

Erich Fromm

Early Explorations of the Social Development of Personality

Erich Fromm (1947) was one of the early theorists to reinterpret Freud along social lines. Although constructing his model in accordance with the same themes, Fromm questioned the relevance of biological forces as the prime element in character development. Instead, he emphasized the interpersonal transactions between parent and child. For example, the compulsive pattern was seen to result not from frustrations experienced at the anal stage, but from the behavioral models exhibited by a rigid and meticulous parent.

According to Fromm, four problematic character orientations develop from early interpersonal learning experiences. The first, the receptive character, is characterized by a deep need for external support from parents, friends, and authorities. All things that are good or necessary are found outside the self. The second, the exploitative character, extracts what it wants from others, either by force or cunning. Pessimistic, suspicious, and angry, these characters feel incapable of producing on their own. The third, the hoarding character, achieves a sense of security by saving and keeping. Rigid and orderly, they are miserly about their possessions and thoughts, sharing almost nothing. Finally, the marketing orientation is ever ready to adapt itself to what others expect or require. As such, they have little that is stable and genuine in their own makeup because they are always "selling" themselves to others.

short of this. Real achievements are taken for granted and rarely acknowledged. Given these parents' low threshold for criticism and condemnation, for projecting an all-bad image into the child without rewarding the positive, future compulsives grow up living in fear of some inadvertent transgression, ever circumspect of the possibility of making a mistake, while feeling guilty that not enough has been done to secure parental approval. Donald's parents, for example, were so "stern" that "He remembers trying to color between the lines and feeling that the picture was ruined if there was one errant mark."

Working from her SASB model, Benjamin (1996) sketches a similar picture. The parents of future compulsives emphasize perfection and orderliness, while offering the child little warmth and no respect of his or her developmental level. In other words, the parents of compulsives-in-training often behave with a stern, cold formality, Benjamin states, and demand that the child not only perform tasks of which he or she is develop-mentally incapable, but also perform these tasks with perfection. Failure is met with blame. Displays of affection in the household are not tolerated, and the child is expected to behave like a highly rational miniature adult; Donald's parents, for example, took pride in calling him "our little man." Because children learn to regard themselves as others regard them, these standards and expectations are then put into the superego, with the result that the child comes to demand perfection not only of the self but also of others. Finally, as Benjamin further emphasizes, parents who are angry and moralizing in addition to being cold and controlling produce children with a self-righteous streak loaded on top of other compulsive characteristics. Perhaps this is the case with Elsa, who has made it her mission to weed out the slackers among her students.

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